Iranian Revolutionaries Hold Americans Hostage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. government’s support for the shah of Iran evoked the ire of Iranian revolutionaries, who took American diplomats hostage, adding new human rights violations to those of the prior regime.

Summary of Event

The anti-American sentiment that culminated in the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1977 had its roots in the 1953 overthrow of popular prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. Prior to that time, the United States had been praised by many Iranians as a liberating force that had protected them from the British and the Russians. After 1953, however, Iranians of all political persuasions began to condemn the United States as an oppressive exploiter that had allied itself with the imperialistic interests of Great Britain. American support for the governing regime of Iran, which began with the rescue of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, solidified the reputation of the United States as an interventionist power in the eyes of many Iranian citizens. By the 1970’s, the anti-American movement had become associated with the antimonarchical movement that had arisen as a response to the shah’s oppressive policies. Iran;hostage crisis Hostage crisis, Iran [kw]Iranian Revolutionaries Hold Americans Hostage (Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981) [kw]Revolutionaries Hold Americans Hostage, Iranian (Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981) [kw]Americans Hostage, Iranian Revolutionaries Hold (Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981) [kw]Hostage, Iranian Revolutionaries Hold Americans (Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981) Iran;hostage crisis Hostage crisis, Iran [g]Middle East;Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981: Iranian Revolutionaries Hold Americans Hostage[03750] [g]Iran;Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981: Iranian Revolutionaries Hold Americans Hostage[03750] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981: Iranian Revolutionaries Hold Americans Hostage[03750] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981: Iranian Revolutionaries Hold Americans Hostage[03750] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;Iran hostage crisis Khomeini, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Vance, Cyrus

The year 1977 set the stage for the Iranian revolution and the virtual severance of ties between Iran and the United States. First, the Iranian economy, which had experienced a boom between 1973 and 1975, began to plummet. The tremendous gap in the distribution of income between rural and urban people was aggravated by the fact that the peasants could not compete with imports that were being sold at subsidized prices. Because there was a shortage of skilled laborers, workers were imported from the Philippines, Korea, and the United States. In an effort to control spiraling inflation, the shah set up groups of inspectors who prowled through the bazaars looking for price gougers. Because most of the people who were arrested and exiled were the pillars of the traditional business community, the bazaar, which lay at the heart of the Iranian economy, was alienated. Even after the economy began to level off later in the year, the people were no better off because the corruption that had accompanied the boom in the early 1970’s was firmly entrenched in the economic system. It is important to note that many people who had instigated the taking of bribes, the fraudulent land schemes, and the exorbitant commissions on contracts were the shah’s family and his close associates.

The event that had the greatest impact on Iranian and American relations in 1977 was the revival of Islam. Throughout that year, young men and women in secondary schools, universities, and religious study centers engaged in dialogue concerning social and political matters. Women even began wearing the long black chador as a way of making a political statement. The resurgence of Islam as a powerful political force first became evident on October 9, 1977, when two dozen masked students at Tehran University burned buses and smashed windows to protest the integration of women on campus. During the following weeks, a number of religious demonstrations were held in the holy city of Qum. Iranians appeared to embrace Islam as a refuge from the tyranny of the shah’s regime.

The year 1977 was also witness to the shah’s liberalization program, which was developed as a response not only to the growing Islamic movement but also to President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy. On January 20, 1977, President Carter said in his inaugural address, “Our moral sense dictates a clear preference for those societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights.” Hoping to win continued military and financial support from the United States, the shah instituted the White Revolution, which was a reform program that focused on land reform and literacy. He also invited Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, and the International Commission of Jurists to investigate the social and political conditions in Iran.

The volatile situation in Iran was made even worse by Cyrus Vance’s visit to Tehran in May, 1977, for the purpose of discussing the sale of 160 F-16 aircraft to Iran. After Vance’s return, the United States tried to emphasize the progress that the shah had made in human rights, but most Iranians believed that the shah had improved conditions only a little and that he would regress once he had won favor in President Carter’s eyes. The shah’s critics pointed to the fact that only one political party, the shah’s Rastakhiz Party, was permitted in Iran. They also exposed the shah’s tendency to categorize his opponents as either communists or reactionary clerics. Both types of opponents, the shah’s critics claimed, were branded as “suffering from mental imbalance” and thrown into prison, where they were beaten and tortured.

A demonstrator holds up a sign at a protest of the hostage crisis on November 9, 1979, in Washington, D.C.

(Library of Congress)

Ironically, the efforts by the shah’s police and the military to destroy the opposition in 1978 only served to strengthen it. A secret network of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers, which had been in place ever since his exile in 1964, escalated its operation by distributing millions of dollars to the impoverished masses who were its constituents. On January 8, 1978, an event occurred that united the fragmented opposition forces. Following a verbal attack on Khomeini in the newspaper Ittila’at the day before, clerics and students staged a massive protest march in Qum. The police opened fire, killing two dozen people and wounding many more. Thereafter, antiregime demonstrations became commonplace; at least one was held every month from January, 1978, to February, 1979. By the end of the fourteen-month period, an estimated ten to twelve thousand persons had been killed and another forty-five to fifty thousand had been injured.

Anti-American sentiment, which had been growing along with the opposition movement, increased dramatically after the Black Friday massacre on September 8, 1978. The shah’s soldiers had fired at the crowds in Jalah square, killing and wounding hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children. Two days later, President Carter called the shah and assured him that he still had the support of the United States. This phone call was construed by the Iranian people as an expression of the U.S. president’s approval of the Jalah massacre. The Iranians’ hostility toward the United States reached its peak when the shah was granted refuge in New York City on October 22, 1979, following the takeover of his country by the Ayatollah Khomeini on February 1.

The new era in Iranian-American relations of distrust and violence that was ushered in after the fall of the shah reached tragic proportions in November. On November 1, 1979, two million angry Iranians demonstrated in Tehran, shouting slogans such as “Death to America.” On November 4, 1979, a group of nearly five hundred extremist students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and initially took about ninety hostages, most of whom were embassy workers and about sixty of whom were U.S. citizens. The extremists vowed to hold the hostages until the United States returned the shah to Iran to stand trial.

For the next 444 days, the fifty-two Americans who remained as hostages (some hostages were released early) were subjected to the same sort of inhumane treatment that the shah had been accused of by the revolutionaries. After being held in the embassy for twenty days, the hostages were bound, blindfolded, covered with blankets, and taken to a series of makeshift prisons. During a series of seemingly endless interrogations, they were beaten and humiliated by their captors. Except for a rare “feast” of hamburgers and sodas, their meals consisted of bread and tea in the morning, cold rice at lunch, and cold soup at night. The only exercise they were permitted was an hour of running in place in the morning. After three months, the hostages were placed in small cells; during their incarceration, they were not permitted to communicate. Hostages who violated the rules were locked in cold, dark cubicles for as long as three days. Toward the end of their confinement, they were forced to stand before a mock firing squad. When the hostages were finally released on January 20, 1981, their emaciated and hollow-eyed appearance provided mute testimony to the suffering that they had endured during their brutal ordeal.


The taking of hostages from the U.S. embassy in Tehran immediately received worldwide attention. Most of the nations of the world joined the United States in condemning the actions of the Iranian revolutionaries as blatant violations of long-standing international diplomatic norms. Diplomatic relations with Iran were severed. An embargo on trade with Iran was imposed by many countries, even as Carter froze Iranian assets in American banks, and the World Court issued a decision condemning the hostage-taking as a violation of international customary and treaty law.

In 1983, a United Nations treaty took effect that called for ratifying nations to prosecute the hostage-takers or to return them to their countries for trial. On the other hand, the success with which the Iranians used hostages to render a superpower impotent inspired terrorists in other nations, especially in the Middle East, to do the same. The unprecedented media coverage that the hostage crisis received also opened up a country that had previously been shrouded in mystery. Both during and after the hostage crisis, the United States and many other nations made a serious effort to understand the Iranian position, and negotiations persisted behind the scenes to resolve the dispute, with Algeria serving as a third-party mediator.

From the point of view of the revolutionary factions in Iran, the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran was fortuitous because it helped to radicalize politics in Iran. Once the embassy was taken, the militants set about the task of piecing together shredded State Department documents they found, with the intention of proving their contention that the American embassy was a “nest of spies.” The documents that the militants recovered supported their claim that the United States and the Soviet Union had joined forces to back the shah and oppose the revolution. As a result, the extremist factions had the proof they needed to gain ascendancy over the moderates. By taking retribution against a superpower that had been perceived for years as an external threat, the extremists rallied the masses behind their cause.

From the vantage point of the United States, the hostage crisis had significant political consequences. The inability of the Carter administration to fully appreciate the strength of the Islamic revival in Iran did irreparable harm to Carter’s presidency. Further damage was done when a rescue mission had to be aborted in April, 1980. The failure of the operation known as Eagle Claw angered military and civilian leaders in the United States. The economic sanctions that President Carter set in place against Iran served only to increase the determination of the hostage-takers. President Carter’s unflagging support of the shah and his inability to resolve the hostage crisis probably contributed to Ronald Reagan’s Reagan, Ronald landslide presidential victory in 1980.

The effects of the hostage crisis in Iran extended far beyond the Carter administration. The hard feelings that were created by the episode went a long way toward shaping U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War] for example, the United States was unofficially on Iraq’s side and even engaged in sporadic firefights with Iran in 1988. During the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, Iran-Contra scandal[Iran Contra scandal] officials of the National Security Commission stated that it was the embarrassment from the ill-fated rescue operation in 1980 that provided the incentive for the exchange of arms for hostages. The hostage crisis left behind a legacy of resentment that crippled Iranian-American relations for years. Iran;hostage crisis Hostage crisis, Iran

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bill, James A. The Shah, the Ayatollah, and the United States. New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1988. One of the most complete accounts available of the events that led up to the taking of the American hostages in Tehran. Unfortunately, does not include any information regarding the treatment of the hostages during their 444-day ordeal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daugherty, William J. In the Shadow of the Ayatollah: A CIA Hostage in Iran. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001. Examination of U.S.-Iranian relations during the Cold War by a CIA agent who was taken hostage during the crisis. Presents a detailed report of his confinement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Houghton, David Patrick. U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Presents an analysis of the events based on information obtained from interviews with key individuals from both sides of the crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, Hamilton. Crisis. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982. Chronicles the last year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, drawing on official documents and interviews to illustrate Jordan’s role in relocating the shah to Panama and his secret negotiations with the Khomeini government during the hostage crisis. Benefits greatly from Jordan’s firsthand involvement in the secret negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Moorhead. The Ayatollah in the Cathedral: Reflections of a Hostage. New York: Hill & Wang, 1986. Memoir by the most widely known individual among the hostages. Attacks not only the sadistic cruelty of the Iranian captors but also the arrogance of the U.S. government in Washington and in its embassies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kreisberg, Paul H., ed. American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Insightful work tells the story of the delicate negotiations in the words of the key Americans, both inside and outside government, who were intimately involved in the process of freeing the hostages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salinger, Pierre. America Held Hostage: The Secret Negotiations. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Lacks the authority of Jordan’s first-person narrative (cited above) but is more objective in its reporting of the delicate diplomatic procedures that resulted in the release of the hostages. The author was a news correspondent who reported on the hostage crisis.

Arab Terrorists Murder Israelis at Munich Olympics

Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy

Iranian Revolution

Iran Uses Executions to Establish New Order

Pro-Iran Radicals Form Hezbollah

Waite Is Kidnapped in Lebanon

Iran Issues a Fatwa Against Salman Rushdie

Categories: History